Last week, the NHTSA’s National Center for Statistics and Analysis released their annual Motor Vehicle Crashes Overview for 2015. Spoiler alert: it’s getting worse out there...

According to the report (which is worth a look here), the number of motor-vehicle crashes went up dramatically, at a rate not seen in nearly 50 years. While total vehicle miles traveled (VMT) increased 3.5% from 2014 to 2015, overall crashes rose 3.8%, and fatalities went up a whopping 7.2% over the previous year.

Numbers climbed in nearly every category:

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The number of passenger car and light-truck occupant fatalities is at its highest since 2009.

  • SUV occupant fatalities increased by 382, an additional 10.1 percent over the number in 2014.
  • Van occupant fatalities increased by 95, a 9.3-percent increase.
  • Passenger car occupant fatalities increased by 681, a 5.7-percent increase.
  • Pickup truck occupant fatalities increased by 200, a 4.7-percent increase.

Motorcyclist fatalities increased by 382 (an 8.3-percent increase), and the number is the largest since 2012.

Pedestrian fatalities increased by 466 (a 9.5-percent increase), and are at their highest number since 1996.

Pedalcyclist fatalities increased by 89 (a 12.2-percent increase), and are at their highest level since 1995.

Alcohol-impaired driving fatalities increased by 3.2 percent, from 9,943 in 2014 to 10,265 in 2015.

The estimated number of injured people experienced a statistically significant increase. In 2015 there was an increase of 105,000 people injured in motor vehicle crashes over 2014.

Getting mad yet? Me too.

How can we stop these numbers from rising even further? What is causing these crashes? The NHTSA has looked into that, too. Not only do the overwhelming majority of these incidents come down to driver error, but the NHTSA breaks it down even further:

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...recognition error, which included driver’s inattention, internal and external distractions, and inadequate surveillance, was the most (41% ±2.2%) frequently assigned critical reason. Decision error such as driving too fast for conditions, too fast for the curve, false assumption of others’ actions, illegal maneuver and misjudgment of gap or others’ speed accounted for about 33 percent (±3.7%) of the crashes. In about 11 percent (±2.7%) of the crashes, the critical reason was performance error such as overcompensation, poor directional control, etc...

The problem is not that we don’t have autonomous cars yet. The problem is not that people continue to drive older cars that lack the latest safety technology. The problem -when it comes right down to it- is drivers who are not investing themselves in the act of driving. That’s the root cause here.

Sure, technologies like automatic emergency braking could yield some good results, but it’s going to take a lot more than that to achieve “vision zero”. Besides, automatic features like this have a nasty side-effect of making drivers a little too comfortable...

When it comes to automation in driving, we’re better off with it being all-or-nothing, lest drivers fall into a false sense of security. But doubling down on autonomy could still put us in a state of overdependence. Perhaps our efforts are better spent investing in human drivers...

Now to be fair, either avenue by which one might look for a solution to universally fix poor driving could eventually pay off. Whether you increase driver competence, or create a competent system to do the driving, you will still end up with better driving, reduced collisions, and improved overall safety.

But influencing drivers to become better is something that could be started much sooner, and at less cost. So why not start now?

With so many different varieties of bad driving to address, a simple It Can Wait -style campaign isn’t going to cut it. We need drivers to up their game in all aspects of driving, not just in putting the phone down.

Maybe instead of aiming for more “safety” technology, the NHTSA could concentrate its efforts on pushing for more/better driver education and stricter licensing procedures... If more drivers faced a higher likelihood of losing their license, maybe they would work harder to keep it.

What other steps could be taken to help improve driving culture? Should things like enhanced education remain voluntary, or does there need to be some sweeping reform? (Say, how soon could we get that gearhead party together?)


Traffic fatalities up sharply in 2015

The nation lost 35,092 people in traffic crashes in 2015, ending a 5-decade trend of declining fatalities... Read on nhtsa.gov